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Raymond W. Monroe: The Idea Man. FMT's Hall of Honor 2013 Inductee.

FM&T Hall of Honor 2013: The Idea Man

Sept. 10, 2013
Chemistry and physics Auburn U., NASA, SRI Making contact Bottom-up, top-down To Saturn and back An organized mind

Ideas carry power, and we live in a time when even the allure of new or different ideas has a sort of power over us. We are alert to new products that are hailed as ‘innovations’, and we respond to “high concept” revisions or “original interpretations”.  In this atmosphere, inventors, designers, creators, and instigators, naturally draw a lot of attention – whether deserving or not. 

Most of us are less attuned to the influence of ideas, or their progress as they gain currency or lose relevance. Least appreciated of all are the curators of ideas, the individuals working to identify and document ideas, frequently improving ideas by adding context or detail, and especially to communicate ideas by careful explanation. There is less power in that role, but more influence.

Raymond W. Monroe is a curator of ideas. He appreciates the power of ideas to influence individuals and improve lives. He works to locate the ideas that will make a difference in the technology of metalcasting, and that will encourage metalcasters to improve their work and businesses.  He takes little credit, but his role as the longtime Executive Vice President of the Steel Founders’ Society of America has resulted in significant success for that association – and even greater success for SFSA’s member companies, and their associates and customers.

It’s this devotion to the importance of good ideas that has earned Monroe a place in the FM&T Hall of Honor.

Read more about the Hall of Honor program and previous Hall of Honor Inductees

Determined to Understand

Raymond Monroe has no trouble recalling the first time ideas influenced him. “I think I was 10 years old, and at some book sale we bought a purple-bound chemistry book that I still have,” he detailed. “It was pre-modern chemistry, but it described the ores that came out of the ground and chemical reactions you’d use to get aluminum or iron, and that kind of thing, and I was utterly fascinated.”

By the time he was 13 he was reading all the chemistry and physics books he could master, and had determined he would make his impact in life by understanding all science and technology, “and how it applied to our lives,” he recalled. Never mind the impossibility of such ambition; Monroe could see by then how ideas shape live.

At Auburn University in the early 1970s, he studied chemical engineering — a more career-minded choice than research chemistry, he noted — and he landed a rewarding co-op assignment at the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal, the site of NASA’s Marshal Space Flight Center. Not only did this work help to cover his college expenses, the research work led Monroe to a consequential encounter.

“I co-op’ed with NASA in their metals area,” he related, “working on plating and corrosion. And I immediately clicked with the metals stuff. I realized right away that the inorganic chemistry that went along with metallurgy was the kind of stuff I really liked. So, I ended up studying chemical engineering and specializing in metals and materials.”

For two years starting in 1973, Monroe worked on corrosion and surface-treatment studies supporting the development of NASA’s Space Shuttle program. “The Shuttle had been completely designed and all the materials were selected, so we were trying to deal with problems that people anticipated might happen during a shuttle mission.”

In addition to studying corrosion and stress-corrosion samples, he contributed some work to coating, plating, and surface-treatment studies. He expressed appreciation for the chance to affiliate with so many bright people and to do critical research work, especially the further insight to metallurgical studies. He also noted the advantages gained from having worked on such projects in a large organization. 

After graduating from Auburn with a B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering, and with an eye on post-graduate study (later, he would complete a M.S. in Engineering Science at the University of Alabama - Birmingham), he had another fortuitous encounter.

Charles Bates at Southern Research Institute interviewed me to work in the foundry there, and when I got to the foundry and saw they were pouring molten metal I decided, ‘Boy, this would be a really cool place to do research. And so I went up there to get a Master’s and do research for a few years – and that’s really what hooked me into the industry.”

“We are in a continuous discussion with our member companies about how the industry is operating. What are the important technical issues that we face? What are the key areas of technology that we need to work on?” “We have to be open-minded to new technical ideas, to evaluate the evidence that they provide a benefit to us, so that if the idea is correct people can adopt that technology and we can see that improvement.”

SRI, in Birmingham, AL, is a not-for-profit research center in Birmingham that conducts basic and applied research for commercial and non-commercial organizations. It has been a notable center of metalcasting research over the past several decades, including projects studying high-temperature materials, mold-gas emissions, gas volumes and compositions, and the effects of binder chemistry on surface quality of castings, and lost-foam casting processes.

“I worked there for six years,” Monroe indicated. “Bates hired me because of my chemical engineering background; at the time we were trying to gasify coal.

“My first project involved looking at the combustion of metals in an oxygen environment. We actually worked with NASA, because the Space Shuttle design had an oxygen pump in the external tank, … Bates identified that we’d need to do some heat-transfer modeling and calculations, and he thought that with a chemical engineering degree, he could use me for that. So, I started doing thermal analysis of ductile iron and compacted graphite irons, and that allowed me to really begin to get involved in the foundry processes.”

He described his term at SRI as “a real providential thing, because I enjoyed doing research, it was the kind of hands-on, nuts-and-bolts stuff I really like. And, my academic background in chemistry gave me a unique way of thinking about metalcasting – the chemical reactions, the heat flow and heat transfer. Most people in metalcasting are metallurgists or mechanical engineers, and so they have a different academic approach to solving those problems.

Realizing he had a different understanding from most of the metalcasters he encountered, Raymond Monroe relied on a bit of inherited wisdom. “I think it comes from my father’s side of the family,” he confided. “We were always taught to deal with the full range of people that we’d encounter, and to be ready to express an idea to whomever we’d meet — to the guy working on the shop floor or the president in the corner office.”

His approach is to be willing always to work with anyone, and to be ready to get involved to address a problem. “You ought to be able to talk to everybody, and you ought to be able work on things, and to fix things … with your hands. Get your hands dirty.”

Thus, Monroe managed to take a non-standard approach to metalcasting, framing the differences to his stylistic advantage. “I’ve always enjoyed trying to bring people together to solve problems,” he said. “And if you listen to people and you are supportive of their correct ideas, they tend to be supportive of you. I was naïve early in my career to believe that if I treated everyone well and was helpful then I’d never make any enemies, but in general I haven’t had anybody that’s really been resistant to the background I had or to the ideas I offered.”

Research as a Mission

So well accepted was he that in May 1982 Raymond Monroe joined the Steel Founders’ Society of America (SFSA) as its research manager — an affiliation that has continued for most of the following 30 years.

Research was among the defining missions of SFSA. With almost 100 member companies, a large administrative staff, and a steady income of dues from foundries that had prospered throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the association was backing four or five important research programs every year at a cost of up to $100,000 annually. Hired to oversee the SFSA’s specifications and research efforts, Monroe now recalls it was just about the moment when the bubble burst.

A long, prosperous period was ending for U.S. metalcasters, and a more turbulent era for all domestic manufacturers was underway. There have been highlights (better process controls, more effective use of information and technology), but the downsizing of organizations and a de-emphasis on investments capital goods hit foundries hard. Associations that represented metalcasting companies, like SFSA, faced serious challenges to their future existence.

Research funding began to decline in the following years, and some steel foundries became restive for the organization to reaffirm the value of their investment and participation in the SFSA.

“My title was Research Manager,” Monroe explained, “and I was responsible for specifications, technical service and support to members. One of the things I loved to do, that I thought was pretty ordinary, was to visit the member companies in their plants, and spend the day with them, to find out what their actual problems were.”

What sounds like ordinary customer service was in fact an invaluable outreach to the members.

“To this day our interaction with our members guides our research and gives us insight into what’s really happening in the industry,” according to Monroe. “We are in a continuous discussion or dialogue with our member companies about how the industry is operating. What are the important technical issues that we face? What are the key areas of technology that we need to work on?”

One of the most significant developments in metalcasting research in recent decades, SFSA’s Clean Steel Program, resulted from that outreach effort.  The Clean Steel effort was an extended, collaborative research effort that identified the common problem of inclusions in steel castings, and focused on its causes (e.g., reoxidation) and techniques to address the related product quality issues.

“We started our Clean Steel Program because of interactions we had with our member companies.”

Working with individual steel foundries helps Raymond Monroe get involved with “nuts-and-bolts problems,” as he called them, giving him real-life opportunities to demonstrate the personal style he espouses. It also helped him establish a managerial approach that would help SFSA regain its high standing among member foundries. 

“Every management task has both a ‘top-down’ and a ‘bottom-up’ element. If you only impose ideas from the top down, you’ll have some kind of distortion in what’s really happening. If you just respond to ideas coming from the bottom up you won’t have any strategic vision – you’ll just be solving the problem of the day,” Monroe detailed. “So, if you really want to have an effective management system you need to combine the elements of a top-down and a bottom-up method.”

For SFSA, the bottom-up approach is continuous interaction with the member foundries. The top-down approach is the strategic planning done by the board of directors. “From an early time,” Monroe said, “I wanted us to be sure we had a good top-down approach and a good bottom-up routine, and the bottom-up effort involves visiting members and interacting with them in our committee structure.”

Currently, one of SFSA’s strategic, “top-down” efforts is the “artisan” (apprenticeship) program that helps member companies advance the skill levels of their current workforces. Also, like many foundries, SFSA members want to finesse the generational change in their management, so the group has established a “future leaders” program: self-selected managers enroll in this effort to learn the skills needed to be executives of their companies, gaining familiarity with their colleagues across the industry and becoming informed about the strategies and techniques that drive the market they inhabit. 

SFSA also works to manage foundries’ environmental strategies (in collaboration with AFS), and it continues to coordinate direct communication with the members.

“Probably the most popular thing that we’ve developed in the last five years has been a survey that we conduct about every two weeks. We take 3-5 questions that are really narrowly targeted, and send out a related inquiry to all our members. Then I’ll compile all 25 or so answers and I’ll send them out to everyone who has responded.” It’s a quick, but densely informative way to share insights among member foundries. “I have members who think that’s the most valuable thing that we do,” he said.

Promoting Steel Castings

Forced to evaluate its future in the late 1980s, SFSA is is thriving today, and that is largely a result of ideas that Raymond Monroe has helped to identify and implement. The membership has remained essential stable since 1988, when he became SFSA’s Executive Vice President.

“In addition to directly increasing the technical knowledge base of steel castings, Raymond has worked tirelessly to promote manufacturing and the use of steel castings,” one foundry executive reported. “He has a wealth of knowledge regarding the technical features of castings, the foundry business, and the general economy, and can bring these together in a way that people can understand and productively act upon.”

In fact, Monroe briefly departed SFSA in 1987. After five years as Research Director he sensed his accomplishments there had peaked and the current management in place would remain for the foreseeable future. He took a position with General Motors’ Saturn Corp. subsidiary, involving its lost foam casting operations. It was brief diversion — and an eye-opening view of the dangers that large organizations create for employees with creative instincts, or for the strategic development of the enterprise. A change at the top of SFSA led the member foundries to invite him back to lead the day-to-day operations in 1988.

Raymond’s personal accomplishments are considerable, too. He has written two books and is the author or co-authored of many technical publications. He is a board member of the Cast Metals Coalition and of the American Metalcasting Consortium. He serves on Industrial Advisory Boards for the University of Northern Iowa, University of Iowa and University of Alabama in Birmingham Material Science and Engineering.

His personal touch is an asset, too. “Raymond is very approachable and always leaves the impression he has time to take care of whatever it is that is needed,” the foundry executive noted. “Steel foundries are a relatively small part of the foundry business but, due to Raymond’s leadership, the SFSA and its members have survived and see a good future as new applications are found for an old process.”

Indeed, he is a determined advocate of increasing the world’s understanding of metalcasters, in every way, starting with the metalcasters themselves.

“I look for big ideas,” Monroe acknowledged, “because that’s the way my mind organizes all the information I try to keep in there. We need to identify big ideas, thematic ideas, about where we need to go and what we need to accomplish.”

He immediately ticked off details of some big ideas driving him, SFSA, and the industry in general: “We need to figure out a way to integrate modeling, so that we can design reliable castings,” he said, before breaking down in particular what models need to be exploited, and why. Then, he turned to another big idea: “We need to develop a new class of materials to exploit the full range of steel properties.” That prompted a discursion on alloying techniques and yield strengths of new steel grades.

“We have to be open-minded to new technical ideas,” Raymond Monroe insisted, “to evaluate the evidence that they provide a benefit to us, so that if the idea is correct people can adopt that technology and we can see that improvement.

“It is a great calling in life to work on technology that improves the lives of the people that we’re involved with,” he finally observed, “and steel castings are a key technology and product that provide huge benefits across the global economy, and proving the technology that makes our products better is something that is a wonderful opportunity we have.”